Friday, December 28, 2007

Slumfights '07


Originally published in The Oregonian on December 27, 2007. Photo and text by Jason Simms.

Things started to turn ugly on Prescott Drive about seven or eight years ago. Residents along the street in the otherwise well-tended Argay neighborhood in outer Northeast started seeing graffiti, drug deals and prostitution.

Valerie Curry, Argay Neighborhood Association president, says that until recently, she needed only two words to describe the street from 125th to 135th: “Trash everywhere.”

But now the area, characterized by its large lots, is swinging back, thanks to Curry’s determination and hard work. She forged an unlikely partnership between homeowners and the owners, managers and tenants of a row of apartment complexes.

Prescott Drive — parallel to Sandy Boulevard, which lies one block north — became the front lines. Homes and condos with clipped grass and trimmed hedges — much like the other homes in Argay — lie on the south side of Prescott. On the north side are five apartment complexes with a combined 648 units and about one-third of the neighborhood’s roughly 6,000 residents.

Calla Marshall, a 72-year-old retired schoolteacher, has lived in her house near Prescott Drive for 34 years and says the street was desirable for many years after the apartments were built in the late 1960s and early ’70s.

“It was just the nicest, quietest neighborhood, ” she says.

Then graffiti and garbage began to appear, Marshall says. She and other residents blamed what they saw as mismanagement at some of the apartment complexes. Over time, Marshall says, “it became a slum.”

Marshall says she would collect a bagful of garbage — food, diapers, condoms — every day, just in the area around her house.

Others saw worse. Curry describes drug deals. “They see me,” she says, “but they are so brazen that they just go right ahead and do it.”

Diana Brown, a stay-at-home mom with a 10-year-old son, has watched drug dealers wave passing motorists into an alley as though they were running a drive-through. A garage sale last summer also sold prostitutes, she says.

She and her husband, Jim, have lived near Prescott Drive for 12 years but didn’t notice how bad it had become until they bought a Pomeranian/Yorkie last year and began to take him on walks. Diana Brown now walks her son to and from Parkrose Elementary, which she says is the main reason they stay in the neighborhood.

Curry bought a home in Argay after 27 years overseas in the Foreign Service. Within a few months, she became president of the neighborhood association, then on the verge of disbanding. Prescott Drive, she says, was the neighborhood’s most pressing problem.

She sought to keep the area clean, hoping seedy elements would find it less inviting. Talks with apartment complex owners and managers were slow-going. She says one, who has since left, asked: “What do you expect for this kind of neighborhood?”

Tenants were often less than friendly, as well. She asked a man to stop cleaning his car onto the street, she says, and he responded, “The police won’t do anything to me, and you can’t.”

So Curry, Marshall and another neighbor began photographing anything — and anyone — they thought police should know about. They sought to foster cooperation, creating a neighborhood drawing contest and giving cupcakes to children in the apartments.

Over time, Curry convinced property owners that she wanted to work with them to make the neighborhood better, ultimately improving the quality of their tenants. “It was a gradual awakening,” she says.

It took the threat of a lawsuit over declining property values to get a couple of complexes to evict problem tenants and hire more landscapers, but the owners of the Melrose Apartments at 133rd and Prescott were among those who came around on their own.

Owner Livia Jurju brought in Alex Juarez, a 27-year-old single father from Florida, as manager in August. The last guy, Juarez says, “was getting paid, but he wasn’t doing his job.”

Now Curry and Marshall rave about Juarez, who collects garbage around the property each morning. “I care about this place as though it was my place,” he says.

The prostitutes and drug dealers haven’t packed up yet, but Curry is hopeful. Cmdr. Mike Crebs of the Portland Police Bureau’s East Precinct says he’s not surprised the criminals haven’t left, but he believes they will.

“It takes a sustained effort,” he says “to get good citizens out and about and drive out the bad element.”

Original blog post linking to the story before the OregonLive link decayed:

If you live in Portland, your rent or property value has undoubtedly been steadily going up since at least 2003. But one street in town, Northeast Prescott Drive between 125th and 135th Avenues, was actually getting worse.

Can you believe it? As plastic replaces brick throughout the city and prices rise on everything from rent to Tecate, there was a formerly affluent area turning into a slum. Now, as much as I love shitty neighborhoods and hope and pray that a little piece of Portland can stay shitty as long as I live here, Prescott ain’t the place for it.

First of all, the people who own homes there have been there for 30+ years in a lot of cases and there’s nothing worse than giving old people unnecessary stress by keeping them awake and/or trashing their area.

Second, this is not the cool, punk-show, free-love, I-can-smoke-weed-and-drink-in-public kind of shitty neighborhood. It’s the prostitute and tweaker kind of shitty neighborhood. And actually it’s not the whole neighborhood—just the one street.

Anyway, I wrote a story about all this and it was in last Thursday’s O.

Photo: By Argay Neighborhood Association President Valerie Curry. These row houses are located at NE 131st and Prescott and are one of the main centers of crime and mess in the neighborhood. While Valerie was giving me a tour of the area in her car, we were approached by a guy who pretty much looked like a zombie walking out of one of these

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Man, I Needed That: SexVid

Out of the light socket hung one clear, crooked tooth. The rest of the bulb had disappeared. It took me a moment to realize why the lights wouldn’t turn on after the Sex Vid show.

I had wanted to take a picture with my phone of a series of big, fat hearts in the colors of the rainbow that hung on the basement wall. I had some crazy metaphor in mind about how SexVid was sort of like those hearts. Unlike most hardcore bands, which paint in grays and sculpt in rubble, Sex Vid was somehow colorful, their music a little warm and silly while still thick, sweaty, and epic.

But I realized that the light bulb said it all. Just a little bit of destruction up there on the ceiling. I took a high heel to the foot during the set and it left a bruise but it sort of like a basement show should. Just a little bit of pain down there on the floor.

SexVid doesn’t exist on the Internet, so spare your browser history the shame and don’t even try it.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Nostalgia Fuck: Avenged Sevenfold

I am a member of a very small group of people who consider Sounding the Seventh Trumpet by Avenged Sevenfold one of their favorite albums of all time.

Now, it’s not so unusual to have an Avenged Sevenfold album in your top 5 or 10 list. I’m sure plenty of young teens have two, the two albums they’ve released since they became one of the biggest bands in the world. I don’t know what they’re called and I don’t care because I listened to them online and I didn’t like them and am too busy listening to Sounding the Seventh Trumpet and then shredding inferiorly.

What makes Sounding so good? The backbone of the album is the drumming. Insanely, inhumanly busy. The meat of the record is the brilliant combination of butt rock and hardcore. It’s the album that single-handedly got me interested in metal.

I saw A7x at Reed College in 2002 on the Sounding tour and talked to their guitarist, Synyster Gates who told me he was jazz-trained and that’s how he’s so good which got me into playing jazz guitar.

Then I noticed a hole in A7x’s tour schedule in the summer of 2003 and booked them in Santa Fe with my short-lived A7x-inspired band Invisible Music opening. The show sold out to 125 people.

The next time I saw them was at the Roseland in 2005. I’d heard their new album, which had them at number 1 on TRL, and thought it sucked. The drumming was perfectly normal. The sound was sort of pop-punky in a way. I felt a little betrayed. But I couldn’t stay away.

When I got to the show, I finally got it. It started in pure blackness then suddenly risers lit up underneath the two guitar players locked in a harmony. An enormous backdrop changed behind them, at one point becoming a huge American flag.

It was awful but it was glorious. It was the cheesiest, most over the top show I’d ever seen. It was more GNR than GNR. It wasn’t Sounding, it wasn’t changing my life, but I got it.

When I saw A7x was coming back, I contacted their publicist because I wanted to do a story where I’d take them out to strip clubs after the show. Everyone knows this town has strip clubs in spades and A7x are really into strippers. The response from the publicist? “We must pass on this interview idea.”

Lame. But the show was not lame (and she guest listed me anyway, thanks!). The lights and backdrop were toned down and A7x still pulled it off. Synyster pointed out into the audience and nodded as he soloed. I winked back from the balcony. I get it.

But most of the people there weren’t laughing. They were adoring (see tattoo photo above). Just like last time, there wasn’t a single song off of Sounding (sigh) but there were 2 off of Waking the Fallen, the transition album into becoming the new GNR, which is pretty OK. I bootlegged “I Won’t See You Tonight Part 1” because I was surprised to hear it live. It’s a great song because it’s pretty much just the heavy ending of a power ballad for 8 minutes straight.

Just as my friend Asa and I were leaving A7x launched into “Chapter Four” for their encore, also off of Waking. Asa pushed me through the pit to the fifth row or so. During the guitar solo, I had him throw all 160 pounds of me on top of the poor 16-year-olds beneath.

I never crowd surf. I hate it. It ruins shows. But this show was so ridiculous, so (I must say it, there’s no other word for it, forgive me) retarded that I had no choice. And I as I sat atop the teens—wearing my full jacket, hat and gloves—I looked square at each member of the band and asked with my eyes, “Do you remember me? Do you remember Santa Fe? Do you remember Sounding the Seventh Trumpet?”

Before I got an answer, I was in the arms of a security guard and being hustled through the barricade. I guess I’ll have to wait till the band agrees to go to a strip club with me.

*A note on the title: I’ve decided to code live reviews here on Simmantics according to different types of sex. This is partially inspired Paige Richmond’s description of Planes Mistaken for Stars as “still fucking” after a breakup.



Originally published in The Oregonian on December 13, 2007. Photos and text by Jason Simms.

Had you walked into Vendetta, a bar on North Williams Avenue, one afternoon last week, you might have thought, "That table of men, there's something about them. They remind me of Tom Selleck but also make me want to go home and make sure my kids are OK."

No need to worry. The 25 or so mustachios were all part of Portland's first crack at Mustaches for Kids, a loose organization in 16 North American cities that challenges people to grow mustaches and take pledges for charity when asked about their facial hair. Most cities, Portland included, donate to the Make-A-Wish Foundation.

And, yes, ladies, they're single. "Look at us. We have mustaches. We don't have girlfriends," says 27-year-old Miguel Rivera when asked whether he's involved with any of the women sitting across from him.

The "growers" shaved Nov. 14 and since then have met once a week to compare progress. The third "checkpoint" at Vendetta proved Rivera right. Only one girlfriend and one wife were on hand.

Summer Money must be proud. Her husband, Scott, who works in the financial aid office of the Art Institute of Portland, is the leading fundraiser with more than $500 in pledges so far. He says most of his donations come from the fact that to join the competition, he shaved a full beard he'd had for years.

Is Summer happy to have had a smooth-faced husband for the first time? No. "I miss the beard," she says.

But just because Scott has made the most money doesn't mean his 'stache is the most impressive. Tim Brown, a 24-year-old travel agent, and Jeff McCaskey, a 27-year-old industrial designer, are neck and neck for the most growth.

McCaskey boasts of the density of his facial hair. "I found a tater tot in there I think was like two days old!" Brown is more down to earth. "I think it helps to have dark hair," he says.

Co-organizer Sarah Compton explains why there are no handlebars or other fancy 'staches in sight. "Corner to corner is regulation."

The growers will compete at the 'Stache Bash next week. There, they will assume a character to display their mustache (ideas include hot cop and the Unibomber). Then their work will be judged on aesthetics and tested for beer-foam retention. Oh, and they'll have to write mustache-themed haikus on the spot. The overall winner will be crowned Portland's Sweetest 'Stache '07.

While McCaskey and Brown are gunning for victory, George Klingerman is having a crisis over his pitiful mustache. "I look like an ugly guy," he says.

Klingerman's mustache is thin and light. He says people frequently try to wipe it off, thinking it's dirt, and pull their children closer as he walks by. He's 29 but is suddenly being carded for the first time in years.

But he keeps coming to the checkpoints to boost his morale. "Shaving in the morning is really hard," he says. "To not just..." he says, making a shaving motion toward his mustache. "But it's for the kids, so I can't give up."

The growers' progress - no matter how glorious or pathetic - is measured by a weekly mugshot that Compton and co-organizer Chrissy Purcell post on the Portland chapter's Web site,

Purcell's brother was crowned Seattle's Sweetest 'Stache '06, which led her to investigate how to start a Portland chapter. Compton, a college friend, was shocked to find out Portland didn't have one.

"It seems like a perfect fit," she says. "People already grow mustaches here just because."

The growers agree that Portland is mustache-friendly. Nate Kappen, who recently moved here from Napa, Calif., says Portland has the best mustaches of anywhere he's lived, including Italy.

Mitch Goldman, who founded the first chapter of Mustaches for Kids in Los Angeles eight years ago, was thrilled to have a Portland chapter, especially one led by two women.

"You can imagine how many times I've had to defend against charges of gender exclusivity," he says.

Women just have to get more creative. Compton says Portland's chapter has a few female participants, including one who's growing a "mustache" on her knee out of leg hair.

But the question is, was it all just a ploy to meet men? Compton says no. But how many men with mustaches has she kissed this month? "Zero, actually," she says.



Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Greg Graffin Interview


I have a short news piece in the new issue of Harp on Bad Religion frontman Greg Graffin and how his doctoral dissertation sold exceptionally well.

I called Greg at his home in Ithaca last July, and the 20-minute interview is transcribed below. This story was intended to run with the release of New Maps of Hell last summer but wound up getting held until now.

I think I managed to play it off cool on the phone with Greg, which is amazing since I was beyond psyched to interview him. Bad Religion has been my favorite band since I was a teenager. I turn to their music—and specifically Greg’s lyrics—any time I need to feel balance and hope.

It’s always nice when you interview your hero and he or she turns out to be as nice and intelligent as you always imagined, and that was definitely the case with Greg. I especially liked the way he answered the question near the end about why The Grey Race may not be as strong an album as Suffer.

Eds 12/10: Since Harp went out of business and is no longer available online, here is the text of the article, followed by the full interview.

Bad Religion:
Pure Mind Power
By Jason Simms

Even though he wrote it “as plainly as possible while still having academic credibility,” Greg Graffin didn’t think his dissertation, Monism, Atheism, and The Naturalist Worldview: Perspectives From Evolutionary Biology, would sell the initial 500 copies he paid to have printed. Most professors retain stacks of their dissertations. But most professors aren’t the lead singer of arguably the most intelligent and sage punk band of all time, Bad Religion. Without a publisher, the book has sold 10,000 copies—which means a lot of teens are reading Graffin’s interviews with evolutionary biologists on their own religious beliefs.

“I didn’t expect it would sell as a piece of merchandise,” says Graffin, who sold the books from his academic website ( instead of “The nature of sharing information is so partitioned,” Graffin says. “You lose credibility when use one category to sell the other.”

But there’s a single source to Graffin’s multiple outlets: “My most creative writing, I think, comes when I’m very active in the science,” says Graffin. “It sort of puts me in a zone that is pure mind power and not so much scrutiny.”

Your dissertation sold a bunch more copies than you expected, right?
Yeah, that’s true.

What did you think would happen when you put it up for sale on
My goal was to write a dissertation that could be enjoyed by the general public. So anybody who really is interested in evolution and religion, I thought, would benefit from reading at least the introduction and the discussion, and the interviews, because the interviews are really fascinating. I interviewed the most illustrious evolutionists alive and it’s a generation of the 20th Century that is not gonna be with us much longer. In fact, three of the people I interviewed are already dead. So I knew that it was a great collection of opinions and I thought that people would generally be interested in it if they were at all interested in it if they were at all interested in the on-going tension between evolution and religion. So, my goal was to write it as plainly as possible while still having academic credibility to the extent that it would pass muster with my academic committee.

I guess instead of searching for a publisher, I just sort of reverted back to my natural tendencies in the way we started Bad Religion: By publishing it ourselves. I didn’t get an agent involved or anything, I just started printing them. And I sort of put the word out—even though, you’re right, it was on, I have also have an academic webpage, and that’s where it was really sold through. It wasn’t sold through our band webpage. I tried to keep it separate because I don’t feel like using my platform in Bad Religion to sell my dissertation, but I don’t mind referring people who might be interested. You know, Bad Religion fans might be interested so I referred them to my academic web page.

I just remember something on about how you were surprised that the first 500 that you made disappeared really quickly.
I signed the first 500 copies, not really thinking that Bad Religion fans would be interested in it, just because I didn’t think there was any way that those 500 copies could sell. I was worried because it cost a decent amount of money to print those and I really was worried we wouldn’t sell them and I’d be sitting on a bunch of books. So I just decided to sign them to see if it would add any value. And it turned out those sold out in the first week or two and by the end of the whole run, we had sold 10,000 out of my garage basically.

I’m so busy right now that we put it on hold. It’s currently unavailable. I am toying with…letting a major publisher take it over and just get it out of my hands entirely.

Are publishers approaching you about it?
Well, the word isn’t really out yet. Maybe if they read your article.

See the point is that I learned from all this, maybe 1000 of those 10,000 were sold to academics. The other 9,000 were just sold like pieces of merchandise that people who like Bad Religion had to have in their collection.

Have you gotten feedback? Do you think people are reading the whole book?
Well like most things in Bad Religion, the audience likes the music, and the music is infused with ideas and so, I think it does provoke them to think, and likewise, even if they don’t grasp the depth or the implications that are written in it, at least I think it provokes them in a way. It makes a bit of a difference.

Are there two Greg Graffins? Does Greg Graffin the poet and the performer feed into the professor?
Well first of all let me say there’s only one Greg Graffin. But in the days of Classical Greece, I think I would have been an orator, who is able to share ideas in a forum, where people would come and listen and it would all be very unified. But in today’s world, we don’t have that. The nature of sharing information is so partitioned, that you can’t really transcend the different categorizations very easily and so I have to walk very carefully so that it doesn’t look like I’m using one category to sell the other one, because I think you lose credibility when you do that. So it’s just the nature of modern media that I have to be kind of sczitzophrenic. It’s hard to be a well-rounded person in the world today because the media generally classifies you as one thing or another. In fact, most people are perfectly happy to define themselves as one thing or another. That’s never sat comfortably with me.

So it’s the same creative well that helps you write your dissertation that helps you write your lyrics?
Very much so, yeah. It’s a motivation just to share knowledge and acquire knowledge and use that knowledge for some sort of an interesting perspective on the world.

I was trying to look at the bio that comes in the book and when Bad Religion albums were coming out, and it seemed to me that my favorite albums came out while you were working. Process of Belief is probably my favorite and it came out while you were in the midst of working on this and I was wondering if you feel like it helps your creativity at all to be in school.
It does sort of help me. My most creative writing, I think, comes when I’m very active in the science. You can also gauge it this year because New Maps of Hell is coming out and it was recorded when I was very busy acting as a professor at UCLA. So now my game is elevated up to an even higher level, I’m beyond the graduate student level, I actually can’t wing it anymore when I’m in front of a group of students. There’s a newfound intensity this year in my academic work, and it remains to be seen the reviews of the new album, but most people say it’s a pretty intense album.

So you feel like the pressures of being a professor sort of fed into the overall energy level?
No, I think it takes my mind away from some of the practical details of writing. It sort of puts me in a zone that is pure mind power and not so much scrutiny. A very synthetic kind of activity, where I’m synthesizing information at a much higher rate and I think that helps me write lyrics.

There are a lot more 60-year-old college professors than there are bands on the Warped Tour. Are you going to faze out Bad Religion at some point and just do academics?
It’s hard to say. Obviously my goal is to try and age gracefully and I’m sure Mick Jagger thinks he’s doing the same thing. He’s 65 now or something and still performing, but hopefully when I’m 65 I’ll have a few books under my belt that are being actively discussed in academic circles and that’ll give me a place to exercise my mind. I don’t know if I want to be onstage as much as I am today.

Will your future books also be accessible to non-academic audiences?
That’s my goal, yeah. I feel you can do a lot more good for the world if you try and write for the general educated public.

Is that also why you continue to be in a punk band instead of, I don’t know, publishing poetery?
I guess so, yeah. I definitely see this style of music we’ve been playing…I’ve always believed it was music for the people, not an elitist kind of endeavor. So that’s definitely part of my core belief system.

I wanted to ask you about the song “No Direction” which you wrote, I don’t know, 15 years ago, but you’re still playing to that adolescent crowd and I was wondering if you still have fans coming to you for direction and if that’s something you still experience and if it’s changed.
Not per se. They don’t ask me what to do. They’re not my peers anymore, so. I think that song was more about, “Don’t ask me to be your leader because you have to make sense of this on your own.” And to a large extent I still feel that way. But I do symbolize something to them—people who are much younger—just like a professor symbolizes something to his or her youthful set of students. I think they somehow show that you never stop learning and you never stop formulating a sense of purpose as you go through life and to me that formulation is an intellectual pursuit. And a true intellectual pursuit is not concerned with giving people direction, but just trying to procure some meaning from a very brief time on the planet. Maybe I offer them some hope that you can age gracefully as a punker.

The last thing I wanted to ask you about is that Bad Religion seems to walk this line between being street credible band and being a pop punk band on the radio and Warped Tour. How do you do that?
I’m not sure. I mean, obviously we’re not the kind of commercial band, like the Chili Peppers who get played on the radio all the time and are considered very mainstream. I think we just have always focused on the content of the songs and the quality of the writing and that’s always been more important to us than the image or the fashion. Because of that we’ve been able to not look too silly as we got older. Because a lot of people you wonder, “Why does he still have a Mohawk?” or “Why is he wearing a leather jacket?” “He hasn’t changed much since he was 16.” I don’t think that offers people much substance. So luckily songwriting is a difficult chore, and if you take it seriously you can only improve with each effort, so that’s what we try to do and maybe there will come a time when we don’t have anything left to write about or we don’t have the energy. But until that happens I think we can still improve in our songs.

Do you think that you’ve always improved? To me Suffer [which came out in 1989] is a better album than The Grey Race [which came out in 1996].
Well Suffer as a whole is a better album, but that’s because [guitarist] Brett [Gurewitz] left the band. We lost half of our writing staff for about four albums. And yet those four albums still have, at least from my own perspective, real achievements in writing. If the whole album itself wasn’t as strong, the high points were definitely higher than my output on the previous album. So I really have to believe that the writing is better each time. Otherwise we’re just taking people for a ride. I can’t sleep well with that idea.

I guess to get back to my original question, you think the fact that you aged well is what makes it okay for a crust punk or an anarchist who listens to Discharge to also like Bad Religion, whereas it’s not okay for them to like NOFX.
Well, I can’t comment on those people. I don’t really understand it. I don’t care…if someone’s committed to something, we can’t really judge ‘em for their fashion. But if they’re just committed to the fashion, I’ve gotta say there’s more to life.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Just Throwing This Out There: Bitch Black


So you might have noticed that this feature in which I toss out an idea for a band name didn’t really end up being so weekly. That’s because I spoke too soon. As soon as I said I could come up with a band idea every week all my old ideas fled and new ones stopped coming. That’s how these things go.

So this column will appear WHENEVER THE FUCK I WANT IT TO from now on. My editors aren’t happy about it, but that’s the way it’s gonna be. Oh wait I don’t have any editors here. Freedom! Self reliance!

My latest idea comes from the bitchin’ new Swallows EP, which I really like. It mostly sounds like my favorite song from their last record. On one of the songs Em sings, “…pitch black…” but it kinda sounds like she says, “bitch black.” So thought, hey, why not form an all black feminist black metal band called Bitch Black. You could be the band to bring DarkBlack and the New Bloods together on the same bill for the first time!

In other news, black metal is officially the most egalitarian form of music. Corpse paint knows no gender or color and a black metal vocalist’s race and gender can’t be identified from the sound of his or her growl.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Still Cruisin'

Gosh I’m such a slacker. It’s been almost a month with no love for Simmantics. What the hell was I doing?

Actually, I’ve been ridiculously busy and that’s why you haven’t heard from me, loyal horde. But such is the way with the freelance writing gig. I am busy now, but none of my work reaches the public till later. Here are things I have in store for you in the next month (in no particular order):

Gays! Hip, young gays who opened the best club ever for only 5 weeks in Seattle!
• A neighborhood united across economic lines and struggling with prostitution!
George Tabb and the greatest domestic atrocity of our generation!
• My current and childhood hero, Greg Graffin!
Mustaches! Children! A recipe for success!
• The worst possible place to spend Christmas!
• The rest of this here Culture Cruise. I am behind one of the cameras and partially behind the concept!